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Issue 199

Could UNESCO World Heritage Status Help Refugee Camps?

How to handle ‘refugee heritage’ from an architectural perspective

BY Suzanne Harris-Brandts in Opinion | 06 NOV 18

Today's world heritage practices have come a long way since their heady days of Orientalist fetishization and imperialistic supremacy, becoming more sensitive to both material and immaterial cultures as well as differences in societal structures. Still, there remains much contestation with regards to what constitutes world heritage and the benefits that can come from such designations. As the procedures for selection evolve and struggle to place local practices into universal frameworks, proponents of conservation will also have to come to terms with how heritage can have negative impacts on communities. UNESCO sites such as Erbil, Hampi and Wutaishan, for example, have all experienced mass displacement as a result of government-led campaigns to convert ancient settlements into tourist destinations.

In this context, a call for UNESCO to acknowledge a unique form of ‘refugee heritage’ comes as both a surprise and a welcome moment for renewed discussions on the pervasive, if shifting, politics of world-heritage conservation. In 2017, Decolonizing Architecture – an architectural studio and residency in Beit Sahour fronted by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti – produced a dossier titled ‘Refugee Heritage’. Compiled through a series of workshops, lectures and a course hosted at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, it nominated the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh in Bethlehem, for UNESCO recognition.

For more than seven decades, temporary refugee camps have been the de facto homes of nearly one third of displaced Palestinians – a duration long enough for these ageing structures to be considered for protection. In spite of this, the dossier has no official legitimacy: nominations must always be channelled through UNESCO member states and the camp exists as an extra-territorial space outside state sovereignties. Yet, it is precisely by probing these types of relationships  –between rights and space relative to the complexities of the Palestinian condition – that the nomination seeks to open important conversations,

UNESCO officially recognized Palestine in 2011. This allowed certain sites threatened by Israel’s unilateral appropriation, such as Rachel’s Tomb (Bilal bin Rabah Mosque) and the Cave of the Patriarchs (Ibrahimi Mosque), to appeal for recognition as integral parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The nomination of Dheisheh is fundamentally different, in that it does not commemorate a conventional heritage site of the centuries-old monotheistic religions. The camp is an artefact of the 20th century: a site of territorial exception representing political failures and the mass Palestinian displacements of the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, of 1948, when the state of Israel was created. It stands as a testament to British imperialism, Israeli colonialism and the UN structures that resulted in the construction of Palestinian refugee camps as a spaces of exile and exception.

But the history of Dheisheh goes further. As an architecture of exile, the camp’s forms reflect decades of lived experience and shifting place meaning. The idea of ‘refugee heritage’, as proposed for Dheisheh, thus captures refugees’ more mundane histories, beyond dominant narratives of suffering and displacement. It offers them a means through which to find value not only in their predisplacement lives and their perpetually forestalled returns, but also in the ‘now’ – in the ever-accreting period between their official histories and dreamed-of futures. Some refugees living in camps fear that, irrespective of their legal right of return, embracing this in-between life will further entrench their displacement. Others would rather forget this history But, for the nomination team, the notion of a heritage of exile aims to provoke an alternative mindset for the displaced, offering a way through which they might begin to value present alongside their pasts and futures.

With the history of Dheisheh being one of ongoing flux, the challenge facing this speculative proposal has less to do with claiming that there are special forms of culture within the camp, than with deciding exactly what is means to acknowledge such cultures, given both their emotional and political weight and the camp’s extra-legal condition. It’s important to consider also that the act of recognizing cultures of exile presents a unique paradox that UNESCO’s current preservationist bent is incapable of accommodating: practices of adaptation must be preserved under conditions of permanent impermanence.

In order to capture the value of such places, the definition of world heritage will need to advance beyond historically focused pluralist views that solely acknowledge ‘uniqueness’ and ‘difference’ across rooted traditions. It will need to consider the hybrid forms of contemporary culture that are produced by millions of people, which, at best, can be categorized as ‘neither this nor that’ or ‘many things at once’: the cultures of those simultaneously in exile and at home. To focus, as UNESCO does, on a conventional understanding of cultural relativism where cultures are distinct bounded entities ingrained in pre-modern traditions, overlooks the rising global presence of such hybrids. It also risks re-inforcing nationalism, since the notion of cultural antiquity continues to figure greatly in the rhetoric of national superiority and territorial belonging. Global examples of this are innumerable, as it has long been common practice for states to selective ‘extract’ nationalist narrative from their sites of antiquity. But instances can also be witnessed locally across the geography of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In Jerusalem, in particular, Israel has undertaken extensive efforts to selectively frame its national history through architecture and archaeology.

As the particularities of the idea of a contemporary culture-in-exile struggle to meet the ill-fitting protocols of UNESCO ascension, we are faced with a new opportunity to further challenge the intrinsic assumptions of the organization’s heritage practices. Such alternative understandings of culture are precisely what the nomination team wishes to discuss in part four of its dossier, which argues for the need to destabilize both the concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘conservation’. Re-defined, exile becomes a pervasive social condition in which all humankind is currently living, while traditional modes of conservation – those which freeze time, space and culture – are replaced with more dynamic practices and evolving fields of knowledge.

Were the nomination of Dheisheh actually pushed forward, greater reflection would be required on the practical ramifications of ascension and the opportunities and challenges of high-lighting the camp above other forms of Palestinian cultural production. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinian refugee camps sit next to and blend with the settlements of refugees living beyond their boundaries; they are also adjacent to those of individuals who have not been displaced but nevertheless remain stateless. The ways in which various cultures of exile and statelessness are co-produced and intertwined in all these spaces will undoubtedly warrant addition discussion.

In the meantime, the concepts of ‘refugee heritage’ and ‘cultures of exile’ should continue to be expanded and problematized in order to focus our attention on the geopolitical conditions that lead to displacement and direct us toward a better and broader understanding of world heritage in the 21st century. The acknowledgement, alone, of shifting forms of cultural practice and remembrance pushes back against the norms of what is currently considered ‘valuable’ heritage and opens the door for recognizing cultures beyond those classical defined as such.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Impermanent Inheritance’.

Main image: Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethleham, c. 1950-70. Courtesy: Getty Images

Suzanne Harris-Brandts is a Canadian architect and PhD candidate in urban studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA.